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Orchestral scores—some not been heard since the 1940s, and some even with Henry Wood’s original blue pencil markings—are brought magically to life in this important new survey of Dorothy Howell.
Despite her early celebrity, however, Howell’s music faded into relative obscurity in the latter half of the twentieth century. Lamia was quickly published by Novello because of its unprecedented success at the Proms, but it remains the only major orchestral work by Howell to have been published. Four of the five works on this album are world premiere recordings, allowing for a proper assessment of Howell’s orchestral music for the first time.
Born in Birmingham to a large Catholic family, Dorothy Howell grew up surrounded by music. She was the fifth of six children, each of whom was taught to play instruments by their parents, who were in turn both gifted amateur musicians. Her maternal grandfather was an arts critic, her maternal grandmother also an amateur violinist.
By the time Howell was in her teens she was an accomplished pianist and violinist, and she later wrote extensively for both these instruments. Her first completed compositions were a set of six piano pieces written when she was thirteen, which contain in embryonic form many of the hallmarks of her later music. They are rhythmically playful, have humorous titles like ‘Puddle Duck’ and ‘Mouse Dance’, and show a clear instinct for distinctive melodies.
Howell’s mature style is descriptive and programmatic, always focused on melody and heavily influenced by late Romanticism. Her Humoresque perfectly demonstrates the lightness and energy of her writing. An orchestral version of her 1919 piano work of the same name, this short piece has a distinctive, jaunty main theme that reflects Howell’s interest in Spanish music. It was premiered in Bournemouth in December 1921, where the critic for the Bournemouth Guardian declared it ‘a merry little piece’.
Lamia (1919) is an altogether different work. It is a symphonic poem based on Keats’s poem of the same name, about an all-consuming but ill-fated love. Lamia is a serpent who has been transformed into a woman, but will be returned to her original form should her identity ever be revealed. She falls in love with Lycius, but when they finally marry she is recognised at their wedding feast. Lamia immediately vanishes, and Lycius dies.
The poem’s characters and events are clearly discernible in Howell’s piece—she might have made an excellent film composer had she been given the opportunity. It begins with Lamia’s theme in the flutes; Lycius and Lamia’s love music is then introduced on the oboe before being taken up by the strings, developing into a passionate central climax. The wedding dance follows, but is interrupted by the return of snippets from Lamia’s theme. Howell finally reprises the theme in full, and the piece draws to a funereal close.
Koong Shee (1921) is Howell’s only ballet, and is built on a similar tale of fantastical, doomed love. She took her narrative from a seventeenth-century story created to sell porcelain tableware with a particular chinoiserie design known as the Willow pattern. A wealthy mandarin plans hopes for his daughter Koong-se to make a politically useful marriage, but she is in love with his bookkeeper, Chang. When the mandarin discovers this he has Chang killed. Koong-se, distraught with grief, burns down her house with her inside it. The gods take pity on the lovers, however, and transform them into doves so that they may spend eternity together.
Thanks to the twentieth-century resurgence of interest in chinoiserie, both the pattern and the story were extremely well known to Howell’s audiences. She had probably envisaged her ballet being staged at one of the big popular theatres, with an elaborate set to complement the score. But British ballet was in a lamentable state in 1921. The Royal Ballet was not established until 1931, and the English National Ballet not until 1950. Koong Shee, like Lamia, was given its premiere at the Proms in an unstaged concert performance. The ballet is in the same sound world as Lamia, with Howell drawing on a similar harmonic palette and employing a rich orchestration with woodwind and cor anglais moments that indicate the influence of Sibelius.
The reviewers were not kind to the piece—the Pall Mall Gazette said that the work ‘reveals no novel outlook’ even if the music ‘is pleasant enough’, while the Daily Herald dismissed it as unoriginal, saying that it might transpire that Howell had ‘merely an imitative feminine gift’. The Daily Telegraph was more generous, pointing out that the score ‘calls for stage action to make anything like its full effect’ because she ‘has been at infinite pains to make her music as apt and expressive as possible in relation to the various incidents of the story.’ Nonetheless, Koong Shee is yet to receive a staged performance.
Howell was immensely disheartened by the Koong Shee reception. She wrote to the older composer Ethel Smyth for advice, concerned that she was already becoming an ‘antiquity’ in her twenties. Smyth responded kindly, telling the younger woman that she had to fight for her work to be taken seriously. Howell was about as far from a self-publicist as it was possible to be, however. Instead of chasing performances, she turned back to composing and completed her Piano Concerto in 1923, which was premiered with the composer herself at the piano.
Her next major orchestral work was another symphonic poem called The Rock (1928). Subtitled ‘Impressions of Gibraltar’, it was inspired by a trip she had taken in 1924 with her mother. In the score, Howell recorded the impressions that had given rise to the work:
The street is narrow and crooked, and crowded with little shops on either side displaying wonderful embroidered shawls, carved ivory figures and oriental rugs … The donkeys bray, and their masters call their goods in a queer sing-song voice. There are men who go round with herds of goats and milk them by the roadside for each purchaser. They announce their approach on a little set of pan-pipes. Another tune I heard, played by a knife-grinder in search of jobs.
Howell’s score is cinematic and suggestive, creating the bustle of the street markets with imaginative percussion and woodwind flourishes. Just like Koong Shee, The Rock is built on driving rhythms that give it a dance-like quality, propelling the music forwards. Again, The Rock received its premiere at the Proms under the baton of Henry Wood, this time on the Last Night. Howell’s colourful score suited the joviality of the occasion perfectly. The Rock was better received than Koong Shee, The Daily Telegraph judging it to ‘mark an advance in point of workmanship on any recent composition of Miss Howell’s’.
The Three Divertissements (1940) were Howell’s last large orchestral work. The first movement opens with an evocation of castanets, and has a similar playfulness to Howell’s earlier Humoresque. In a handwritten programme note for the work, she said that the piece’s ‘characteristic feature’ is ‘a curious rhythm alternating bars of 2/4 and 5/8’. The second movement is a complete contrast, introspective and haunting, and one of the more sombre pieces in Howell’s oeuvre—she described it as ‘ethereal’ and full of ‘contemplation’. In the joyful third movement she sets the theme in the strings and woodwind against ‘noisy syncopation’ in the rest of the orchestra. After a brief reflective interlude, ‘the boisterous mood of the opening reasserts itself and the music works up to a brilliant finish.’
Penned for the 1940 Proms season, the Divertissements never received their planned premiere because of World War II. The 1940 season was stopped by London’s authorities before the concert containing Howell’s work, which turned out to be an astute move—the Queen’s Hall was destroyed by bombs the following May. The closure of the Proms, however, was extremely bad news for Howell. Wood was one of her most reliable advocates and the Proms the largest concert programme in London. If the Divertissements could not be premiered there, she stood little chance of getting it performed elsewhere as resources became more stretched because of the war. Indeed the work had to wait until 1950 for its first performance, conducted by Adrian Boult at the Elgar Festival. This was the only time that the Divertissements were performed publicly until 2019, when Rebecca Miller conducted them with the Southbank Sinfonia, and again the Divertissements remain in manuscript. Howell always hoped that her orchestral music would one day reach large audiences—hopefully, this recording will be able to give these works the hearing that they deserve.
Leah Broad © 2024
Rebecca Miller © 2024